An efriend originally published this as a guest post to help me launch Against All Odds. In case you missed it there, here are books to help you write characters:
Characters have to be believable. If not, readers put your book down. If your character is a mathematician, he has to think like one, act like one, dress like one. It’s not enough to tell us he works for the NSA analyzing data. You have to give him the quirks that make us believe this guy could save the world with his cerebellum.
If you’re not that guy, how do you convince readers? Traditional wisdom says two things:
- interview people
- watch people
Those are good–especially for your main characters. In fact, you probably can’t create a protagonist and antagonist without interviewing those who have walked in their footsteps. But what about the dozens of other characters who wander through a scene, playing bit but important parts in your plot? Here are some great books that will allow you to color them with a consistent brush:
- Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores the Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals by John Douglas. If you write mysteries or thrillers, this book will help you explore what makes criminals who they are.
- Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood. She explains how to write compelling fresh emotions for your characters. Much of this lies in the showing-not-telling truism; she explains how to show hostility, hate, etc., rather than saying the words. Similar to this one is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman
- How Mathematicians Think by William Byers. Hint: They don’t think like us. I have a brilliant friend who–I kid you not–hates graphs because they distill the information for him. He’d prefer the raw data so he can see the connections. If you’re including someone like that in your plot, this book will make sure you include ambiguity, paradox and their other brilliance in your character’s thoughts and actions. Me, I used this book (and my brilliant friend) as a template for the character Eitan in my Rowe-Delamagente series.
- The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat by Oliver Sachs. Any of his books will give you insight into creative, fascinating psychoses that people live with. In this particular book, a man can’t look at a person as a cohesive picture. All he sees are bits of red and pieces of animals–and in the case of his wife, a hat. She does always wears one so that he’ll recognize her. A character in the early stages of that psychoses might be a fascinating addition to your story
- Please Understand Me I and II by David Keirsey. This is a personality style determinant. Very detailed, but highly relevant for analyzing your main characters’ temperament, character and intelligence.
- The Writer’s Body Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann. If you want characters’ bodies to go beyond appearance to help you build tension, intrigue, and humor, this book tells you how with word choices and phrases for body parts organized under clear categories.
- Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein. This includes profiles of human behaviors and personality types. That way, you can keep your character within the required parameters. It didn’t work for me but it might suit you fine.
- Body language. There are so many great books and websites on this. I have many posts on descriptors and character traits that will get you started (see the right side of this blog). Don’t miss this detail. If your character doesn’t show those tells that every human on the planet does, s/he won’t be believable. No one speaks only with their mouth.
If you have favorite books on this subject, share with us. I’d love to hear about them!
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice, a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection, Winter 2022.